With The Faithkiller, Taffety Punk Theatre Company gives us the world premiere of a work by the gifted Washington-area playwright Gwydion Suilebhan. All hail Taffety Punk! Moreover, the play is an ambitious one, thematically challenging and technically complex. All hail Taffety Punk again, as well as playwright Suilebhan! Finally, Taffety Punk gives this play its best chance by mounting it vigorously, with fine acting, excellent direction, and wonderful technical work. All hail Taffety Punk a third time!
Regrettably, the play needs some work, and maybe some rethinking as well. Insightful, provocative, occasionally very funny and occasionally profound, The Faithkiller runs a cropper of its own formidable ambitions. Dialogue is high context, scenes occur without motivation, there are highly implausible developments and suspect conversions. This is not a play, some might say – it’s a religion.
The Faithkiller is a character in a late-forties radio drama, voiced by Henry (Steve Beall), who also produces and owns the show. It is The Faithkiller’s mission to go after the most dangerous agents of Nazi Germany and, using his brain-drain gun (special effects by Frankie, played by Michael John Casey), disabuse them of their faith in Hitler’s Devine Plan. The Faithkiller reports to General Good (the multi-voiced Albert, played by Andy English) and secretly loves the General’s daughter Sarah (Tess [Maura Stadem Suilebhan], who Henry secretly loves.) Sarah, ironically, can’t return this love because she has no faith in The Faithkiller.
Flash forward two generations. Mary (Kimberly Gilbert), Henry and Tess’ granddaughter (Suilebhan implies, but does not state, that Tess left the show secretly carrying Henry’s child, who grew up to become Mary’s mother) is now a top network executive. Having just been reunited with her grandfather (Beall ages up nicely here), Mary resolves to revive his old series for television – but with a severe twist. As conceived by Mary and her aspiring lover Faruq (Theo Hadjimichael) The New Faithkiller (Kasaun T. Wilson) disillusions the most fervent and outspoken leaders of all faiths by squirting them with an anti-faith substance which goes right to their DNA, thereby defusing the intolerance and sectarian violence infecting the world.
Hinging these two developments is the story of Elijah (Joseph W. Lane), an elderly man in a shabby apartment who loves his Faithkiller radio drama and his grandson Cool (Wilson), not necessarily in that order. Cool is one of those guys who has no visible means of support, and plenty of it. Their neighbor, Mother Manda (Tanera Hutz), drops by periodically – never invited- with concern and faith-based advice. Elijah and Cool are atheists, and when Mary’s new version of the Faithkiller show hits the airwaves, Cool and Elijah love it, but organized religion – behind the leadership of Mother Manda – lets loose a mighty howl.
This sounds like a huge load of plot to animate, but Suilebhan and Taffety Punk solve most of the problems. They march the story along double-time, and Director Marcus Kyd does a superb job of getting the characters on and off the Capital Hill Arts Workshop’s tiny stage plausibly and quickly. But speed is the enemy of intimacy and emotional credibility, and because The Faithkiller’s conflict is at bottom emotional and familial, the pace at which Suilebhan drives the play unwinds the conflict as well.
Let us take the problems in the order they present themselves: whoever said that Nazism was grounded in belief in a Divine Plan? Hitler’s little psychodrama depended on race hatred and pseudoscience, with a dollop of Nietzsche thrown in. Is it plausible that a radio drama called “Faithkiller” could have succeeded in the 1940s? What would Bishop Sheen have said? At one point the network suits suggest that the Faithkiller move back to the U.S. and fight mobsters. Why? American mobsters were not notorious for their religious feelings. Moving into the new Faithkiller series, the premise is that the world’s religions have joined forces to control the world government. Is this credible, even for a TV series? Is it plausible that the chief Ayatollah of Iran would share power with a Lubavitch rabbi and a televangelist? And in the world of the story (as opposed to the story within the story), Suilebhan subjects the new Faithkiller to the opposition of organized religion – headed, inexplicably, by a matronly church lady who lives in a rickety old apartment building. There are professionals for this sort of thing! At the top of the second Act, Suilebhan arranges a confrontation between Mary and Mother Manda at the network’s studio, for no apparent reason. In real life, such a meeting would be mediated by a dozen lawyers and fifty press flacks on each side. We would be unable to see the principals, who would in any event be communicating by press release. There is a completely unmotivated conversion near the end of the play. And so on.
These are serious problems, but they are not insurmountable. What is undeniable is the high quality of the production, which renders every ounce of available drama from the script. Theo Hadjimichael is a revelation, giving full justice to a meaty role. Stadem Suilebhan is as good as I’ve ever seen her, She handles her character’s emotional transitions flawlessly. Although it is not plausible that the church lady head up a sophisticated campaign to bring down a television series, Hutz is equally plausible as the church lady and the head of the sophisticated campaign. I had not seen Lane or Wilson before, but they are each excellent – Wilson, who plays the television Faithkiller, is excellent in two roles. The rest of the cast is similarly strong and nimble.
Lise Bruneau directed episodes of The Faithkiller television series, which are shown periodically on a screen at the back of the stage. They are a little talky but swell. I could see them immediately running on BBC America, and attracting the sort of following that the Dr. Who series gets. John Shryock’s set is notable for the use it gets out of the space, and Matt Neilson’s sound is wonderful.
If this was being offered by one of our big theaters for a jillion dollars a ticket, I’d have qualms, but tickets to Taffety Punk’s production are ten simoleons, and I recommend you go ahead and buy some. This is a flawed but interesting play, done extremely well, and Suilebhan is a good playwright, who will get better.
by Gwydion Suilebhan
directed by Marcus Kyd
produced by Taffety Punk Theatre Co
reviewed by Tim Treanor
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